Height/Weight: 6’6, 215 lbs
Elijah Hughes has steadily improved each year he’s played college ball, and has turned into one of the best scorers not only in the ACC, but in all of college basketball. When Hughes first suited up for the Orange in the 2018-19 season, after transferring in from East Carolina, he was known as a good athlete and spot up shooter. Those skills were on display during his redshirt sophomore campaign, as Hughes was a reliable shooter and played strong defense in an important role in the back of the Syracuse zone.
Fast forward to this season, and Hughes has elevated all aspects of his game and turned into a bona fide star. With leading scorers Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett departing early to play professionally, Hughes knew that he would have to be the go to guy for Syracuse and put in a lot of hard work in the off-season to make sure that he would be ready.
It was well documented by local media that Hughes had focused on taking care of his body to get quicker and stronger in the off-season. When watching Hughes play this year, it’s quite apparent that his hard work has paid off. Hughes looks a lot quicker with the ball, and an improved handle has allowed him to expand his game offensively in a variety of ways.
Instead of simply being a spot up shooter, Hughes has gotten much better at creating his own shot. He utilizes pump fakes well to get an initial step on his man, and has a wide array of moves to go to when he gets inside the arc. You’ll find Hughes pulling up for mid range shots, crossing over and going all the way to the rim, or spinning in the lane and using his size and strength to rise above smaller defenders for fadeaways in the lane.
Hughes has a sweet stroke from three and while he can be a bit streaky, once he heats up he doesn’t miss and becomes an absolute nightmare for opposing defenders.
Defensively, Elijah Hughes is a perfect fit on the back wing of the Syracuse zone thanks to his quickness, athleticism, and awareness. Hughes may be on the shorter side of a typical wing in the back of a Boeheim zone, but he makes up for it with elite timing and leaping ability.
These skills make him an excellent rebounder and shot blocker. His quickness allows him to rotate perfectly within the zone, and helps him get into passing lanes and deflect passes that result in steals for himself or his teammates.
While Hughes has done a great job of expanding his offensive repertoire, he sometimes struggles with his shot selection. Hughes has a habit of forcing shots. In his defense, Syracuse doesn’t have that many shot creators so he is relied upon heavily to create looks for himself and others. Even still, Hughes takes too many contested looks and needs to work on knowing when to dish it off rather than forcing one up.
Another thing Hughes needs to improve upon is his consistency from beyond the arc. His shooting mechanics are great and he has NBA range, but he is streaky from three. He’s around 36% from deep in his time at Syracuse, which is solid, but not as good as several other prospects at his position. Hughes’ role at the next level is more than likely as a three and D guy, so his shooting will be closely monitored by front offices. He he needs to eliminate those cold streaks and get his percentage up to move up teams’ big boards by draft time.
Another concern with Hughes that isn’t necessarily a weakness, rather an inherent question mark for Syracuse players, is his ability to play man to man defense. Since the Orange play 2-3 zone 100% of the time, Hughes hasn’t played any consistent man to man defense since his Freshman year at East Carolina. However, based on his athleticism, quickness, and awareness, there’s reason to be optimistic that he can be a solid defender at the NBA level. Whether it’s fair or not, Hughes’ defense will be scrutinized more than anyone else in any live game/scrimmage situations he participates in at the combine or team workouts.
Elijah Hughes was a role player for his first three years of college, but has stepped his game up in a big way for Syracuse and emerged as an NBA prospect during his redshirt junior season. His year to year improvement is extremely impressive, and it helps his case that NBA teams don’t mind drafting older players like they used to 10-15 years ago.
Hughes does have the option to go back to Syracuse for a fifth season, but I think he should capitalize on his breakout season and strike while the iron is hot. If he does declare and stay in the draft this spring, he’ll go in with the reputation as one of the best scorers at the college level and as an elite athlete with the potential to be a really good defender. The inconsistent shooting and unknowns on defense may cause teams to pause and go with a safer pick, but I believe Elijah Hughes has done enough to hear his name called in the second round on draft night.